Wednesday, September 29, 2021

William McIlvanney and Ian Rankin: The last Laidlaw (and the first)

 William McIlvanney's three novels featuring detective Jack Laidlaw.Laidlaw (1977), The Papers of Tony Veitch (1981), an Strange Loyalties (1991) are not only the foundation of Tartan Noir but distinctive and atmospheric additions to the crime novel as a genre. McIlvanney died in 2015, left an unfinished Laidlaw novel, a prequel to the earlier trilogy, and Ian Rankin (the other most prominent Scottish crime writer) has now finished the  book, released as The Dark Remains by Europa Editioons in their World Noir series.

This is not so much a "young Laidlaw" sort of thing: instead, Laidlaw has arrived in a new post but is aleady fully formed as a contrary cop with methods that constantly clash with his superiors. The gangsters who populate the original trilogy are also here, in an earlier stage of the conflict among them as they establish their territories in Glasgow. The narrativev voice is also consistent with the other  books: Rankin is definitely channeling McIlvanney''s voice, I couldn't tell where the one left off and the other started. The plotting is also very McIlvanney, twisting through the gangland disputes and police assumptions until a final revelation that the outsider Laidlaw is the only one able to reveal.

Because Laidlaw would rather be on the street than in the station, we get a vivid view of a Glasgow that once was, from the dark interior to the lush suburbs. Laidlaw takes buses rather than police cars, a lot of the time, and the panoramic view of the city is enthralling. The book 

 The Dark Remains is a marvel of quirky, witty prose (much like Laidlaw himself). Laidlaw leaves books by foreign philosophers on his desk in the station, but he keeps them handy not because he frequently refers to them: rather they are props to reinforce his persona as the odd man out, so that the other cops will leave him alone with his thoughts. His one friend (or almost friend) makes some attempt to understand him but Laidlaw keeps even him at a distance. For that matter, he also keeps his wife at a distance: when on a case, he prefers to stay in a low-rent hotel in the city rather than return to his home on the periphery, partly to stay close to the case and the streets, partly not to stay close to his wife. He loves his kids, but his dedication to eh job has severly strained his marriage (a prominent factor in the trilogy as well). 

The novel is funny, philosophical, gritty, dark, and very deep in its portrayal of human interactions and failings. There is considerable violence (mostly just off[-stage) and even more threats and implications of violence. The gangsters are fully human, but there is not a "heart of gold" among them: This is noir territory, nothing cozy about Laidlaw's Glasgow. If you haven't read McIlvanney, you could start with this wonderful "prequel" in collaboration with Rankin or with the triogy: one way or the other, I encourage you to experience McIlvanney's deep and involving exploration of Glasgow and of the literary possibilities of noir.

Thursday, August 26, 2021

More (late) summer reading: Laura Lippman etc.

 Laura Lippman has recently been releaseing some of her most ambitious and succesful novels: I'm thinking in particular of the new-noir Sunburn and the new Dream Girl. Dream Girl is a twisty combination of horror (a la Stephen King's Misery, explicitly evoked in the book), a literary thriller, an academic comedy, and a meditation on resentment, revenge, andn authorship. Highly recommended and both compelling and fun.

The Good Turn, by Dervla McTiernan, was the kind of hidden gem that sometimes turns up on the digital galley websites, offering previews to bloggers and critics. This is the third novel in a series that I hadn't heard of, but it seemed interesting enough to have a look. In fact, this is an excellent police procedural with numerous distinctive features preventing it from settling into the groove of the average cop story. The characters are well-drawn, the plot complex and forward-moving, and the story involving. The setting, the west of Ireland and a bit in Dublin, is drawn vividly, and offers insight unavailable to a tourist. I went out and bought the first two novels in the series--how much more recommendation do you need?


Another Irish novel, by another author  I was not previously aware of: 56 Days, by Catherine Ryan Howard. There are too many twists in this one for me to reveal anything about the story (almost any preview would be a spoiler) except that it's very contemporary--set in the first Irish Covid lockdown, providing a claustrophobic background to the stor. I can only say that it starts out as a rom-com, shifts into horror and police procedural, and very effectively shifts back and forth in time to unpeel the story layer by layer, up to the final revelation. All along, you suspect that there's more going on than you can see, but Howard sustains both suspense and surprise all the way through. Ultimately it's a psychological thriller, an early crime-fiction take on the pandemic, and an entertaining read all the way to the end.

Monday, June 28, 2021

Giarico Carofiglio review


Tuesday, June 08, 2021

Suggestions for summer reading: Part 1

 I haven't been posting much lately, so to avoid the pressure of doing full reviews of the books I've read recently, I'm going to list some books with brief comments and recommendations.: Here are the first 3:

Becoming Inspectyor Chen, by Qiu Xiaolong: The story follows 2 tracks, one in the present, in which Inspector Chen faces a dilemma of conscience more profound than the murder mystery he is (covertly) investigating. The other is the detective's backstory, beginning in the miseries of the Cultural Revolution and returning frequently to a lane of traditional houses that also figures in the contemporary story. The style of the writing is typical for this series, reading as if it  had been translated from formal Chinese, and also typical is the vivid portrayal of contemporary China in all its aspects.

The Foreign Girls, by Sergio Olguín: This second novel by Argentine author Olguín follows the same character as the first (Veronica is the character, The Fragility of Bodies is the book), the independent-minded journalist who is now taking off some time after the traumatic first case, involving trains, murder, and the exploitation of children. While traveling in the country, outside her usual haunts in Buenos Aires, she becomes involved with a pair of women from Europe, one Scandinavian and one Italian, who are traveling together. The book has a strange structure in the beginning, first going over the beginning of the story in e-mails that Veronica sends to a friend, then in a normal narrative going over all the same ground, before going beyond the e-mails at the point of the crisis that Veronica is telling, the murder of the 2 young women. The book is propulsive in its momentum and compulsive in its hold on the reader, as well as,violent, and explicit in the violence of men against women.

The Darkness Knows, by Arnaldur Indri∂ason: Indri∂ason has begun a new series that has aspects of 2 big shifts in Icelandic history and culture: the occupation of the country by the U.S. during WWII and the tourist boom after the financial crisis. The main character of this book, Konrád, whose career in the police began in the first of these two periods and has just ended in the second. He is drawn out of retirement when the corpse of a missing person that he had fruitlessly searched for years before suddenly turns up in a  melting glacier. The plot is meticulous (as always with Indri∂ason) in its depiction of the investigation, and leands relentlessly toward a moral dilemma that the reader will not see coming.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Alan Parks, Bobby March will Live Forever/Jo Nesbø, The Kingdom/

 A quick review of three recent. books, all of which have a lot of music in them, but two of them have rock music as a major theme. Jo Nesbø's The Kingdom has a lot of music in it, being referred to or played in the background of the main story, but it's more of a matter of texture fot ehis book, rather than a. main theme. The Kingdom is not one of the Harry Hole books, it's a stand-alone about a pair of brothers who have endured a lot of abuse and tragedy. One has gone to America to escape amd make his fortune, the other stays on the famil's "kingdom," a farmstead (not a working farm) on the outskirts of a small Norwegian town. The prodical son's return, with a scheme for the development of the town and an American wife, kicks off a series of memories about the past (mostly unpleasant, sometimes grisly) and a series of events in the present (arson, murder, assault), with the two threads coming together in unpredictable ways. There are twists that you may expect, and yet sometimes when you think you have something figured out, Nesbø turns them around into something else. It's an intriguing story about love, sex, ambition, regret, and above all else family.

Staalesen's running character in his long-running detective series is Varg Veum, an untypical detective (his backgtound is in social work) often involved in cases featuring children. In Fallen Angels, though, we go back to Veum's own past, in memories and connections set in motion by the funeral of a school friend. We learn a lot about Veum, but even more about the local music scene of the '60s, in the detective's youth, when soe of his friends were in a regionally succeful band. The story leads us to the bandmembers in the present day and into an elaborate revenge. plot, along wiht a glimpse of the music scene of present-day Bergen. The pacing of Fallen Angels is different from the typical Veum story (and different from the average crime novel), delving into the character's youth before showing (or inferring) the murders that will show up about halfway into the book. From there, the pace picks up and we are back in crime fiction territory, in a moving story that involves the dark side of families, even evidently happy ones.

Bobby March will Live Forever is the third Harry McCoy book by Alan Parks, and here, too, a musician's past, mostly regional, success is the backstory that punctuates the contemporary tale (of gangters, murder, rape, and general mayhem that readers of Parks's previous novels will surely expect to see. Parks's portrayal of the Glasgow of the recent past is gritty and evocative, and his cops and gangsters are credible and complex. The interspersed music plot seems to be mostly an unrelated portrait of the trials and pitfalls of success and near-success in rock and roll's classic period (Bobby March, the guitarist who gives the book its title, once played with the Rolling Stones in a recording session, along with his participation in an almost-succesful band and his release of less-than-succesful solo recordings). The music plot does circle around to find its link to the main plot of the story, in more of a metaphorical than a literal way, in an unexpected solution to the event that kicks off the whole novel: McCoy's discovery of the body (and possible murder) of March in a Glasgow hotel. The story is propulsive, even in its digressions (and the digression about the world of rock is compelling), and develops in unexpected shifts (sometimes a victim is not so clearly a victim, for instance) and changes of direction that will keep a reader on their toes.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

The Transaction, by Guglielmo D'Izzia

The Transaction is a novel set in the 1980s in Sicily, with murder and the mafia as important (though off-stage) elements of the story. But D'Izzia's novel is less Montalbano than Pirandello, not so much a crime novel as a literary and philosophical tale. The author is from Sicily, but emigrated to Canada and wrote The Transaction was written in English (with the creative license of a writer, à la Nabokov, whose native language is not English).

The story concerns a businessman from Milan, sent to a small town in Sicily to finalize a land deal that would allow his company to open a branch in the south. But the journey is plagued with difficulties from the beginning: his train breaks down and he is late arriving in the town, only to find that his contact there has been shot dead. From there, he wanders from one hostile encounter to another.

The narrative is in the first person, and there are hints that the narrator is creating some of the hostility himself, through his manner and attitude, And when the obstacles to his mission seem insurmountable, he remains in the town, courting hatred and danger, well beyond any reasonable time, despite insults and injuries.

The text is very detailed, evoking the claustrophobic Sicilian town vividly. The story is told clearly, though without a lot of forward motion, and I was pulled right along to the end. A major theme and characteristic element of the story (and this is hardly a spoiler) is that the "transaction" of the title never happens. The ending is, in fact, quite puzzling, leaving the reader to decide if the narrator is suicidal, infatuated, or perhaps insane.

Sunday, December 06, 2020

The Second Life of Inspector Canessa, by Roberto Perrone

Roberto Perrone's The Second Life of Inspector Canessa is the second book in a new series from Walter Presents, which is the BBC's excellent series of crime TV series from around the world, and Pushkin Press. Perrone's novel, originally published in Italian in 2017, deals with the aftermath of the "years of lead," the period of terrorism (from the left and the right) in the 1970s and 80s, viewed from the perspective of today. Canessa, a retired Carabiniere, is suddently called back from his calm new life as a restaurateur in a remote coastal village, when his estranged brother is killed alongside a famous terrorist recently released from prison.


Most of the book is set in the present, with frequent flashbacks to explain Cane Canessa's career fighting the terrorists. And most of the present-day is the ex-cop's private search for the reasons behind his brother's death. The investigation is an interesting tour through the Italian justice system, and the story has lots of intrigue and a good bit of shooting. Overall the book is a satisfying introduction to what has become a series featuring perrone, though I have a couple of reservations. The first thing is that young women seem always to be compellingly attracted sexually to the old men ocupying most of the key roles in the story. Some of the wome of the women clearly have financial motives, a few have professional motives, but especially in Canessa's case, young (much younger than him) women are throwing themselves at him in a way that stretches credibility and also reinforces what is altogether a limited sccope of action for the women in the book. Canessa also possesses superhuman powers, it seems, when people are trying to kill him (in a shower of fire from AK47s, for example), but that's just a quibble.

So I would recommend the book for a glimpse into a segment of Italian history, but I would hope for some more realistic and sympathetic female characters in the sequels.